Tunisia is not and has never been spared from acts ranging from weapons smuggling and corruption, to terrorist funding and money laundering. However, with the Jan. 14, 2011, revolution, the country truly became a bonanza for dirty money due to its delicate security situation, which conferred a certain degree of impunity. Despite the hermetic aspect of this topic, its cases erupted after the revolution.
The Tunisian Financial Analysis Commission (CTAF), a financial intelligence unit headed by the governor of the Central Bank that includes members representing the customs and police departments as well as the judiciary, received 249 suspicious activity reports this year. The main culprits were politically exposed figures.
Thousands of corruption cases have been filed since the revolution. Of the 249 suspicious activity reports which reached the CTAF, as many as 119 reports were referred to the public prosecutor, while 58 reports resulted in the freezing of assets of the people involved.
Habiba Ben Salem, a representative of the commission who gave a talk on the sidelines of a seminar on the fight against money laundering in Tunisia, explained that the Tunisian anti-laundering legislation sets forth that any detection of an unusual transaction must be filed as a suspicious activity report to the commission by the bank, the insurance company or the non-banking financial institution under which the said transaction was performed.
The commission will be responsible for assessing the merits and, if necessary, referring the file to the public prosecutor to initiate relevant investigations and submit the case to the competent court.
The events of the Arab Spring have boosted money laundering in countries of the revolutions, including Tunisia. Suspicious transactions have surged. Tunisia finds itself among the most affected countries by such practices alongside states such as Switzerland and Belgium, which appear, respectively, in second and fifth place in the ranking of countries from which dirty money is transferred.
Money laundering, which is an element of the techniques of financial crimes, consists of hiding the source of money acquired illegally. Yet, talk about money laundering automatically drags with it talk about weapons smuggling, drug trafficking, prostitution, other forms of smuggling, corruption, and, evidently, terrorism funding.
Major operations are planned by international and regional terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and large sums of money reach those groups through Tunisia. Nasr Ben Soltana, president of the Tunisian Centre for the Study of Global Security, even affirmed that “the smuggling of weapons, drugs and money through the border to Tunisia is used to finance terrorist operations and to support terrorist groups whose activity increased after the revolution.”
Is Tunisia becoming a niche for foreign money laundering?
Deputy Prime Minister for Governance and Combating Corruption Abderrahman Ladgham does not deny that dirty money with unclear and dubious sources was used to finance associations or political parties. Indeed, some organizations spend astronomical amounts of money during their campaigns, meetings and reunions of all kinds. Some highly controversial associations, including but not limited to the League for the Protection of the Revolution, have sources of funding that are still unknown.
Yet, money laundering is a very complex operation. While banks have anti-laundering filters that check the source and identity of the person hiding behind any entry of foreign currencies, internal money laundering operations or those that do not pass through the banking system remain out of control.
The economic and financial situation in Tunisia, which is now seriously jeopardized, is further impaired among foreign investors in light of the proliferation of such practices. Moreover, with spiraling inflation, the entry of foreign currencies, which are not accounted for at the Central Bank, and the unreported operations of local currency creation have greatly contributed to increasing inflation. Another operation also weighs heavily on bank liquidity, and can even cause stock prices to drop, when funds are transferred to the stock market and removed suddenly.
For months, weapons have been confiscated in addition to large quantities of drugs and thousands of euros in many Tunisian cities, some of which share borders with Libya. This explains the source of the funds. However, there is no real fight against money laundering without fighting against the sources of these funds and the crimes associated with them.
To avoid Tunisia becoming a hotbed of money launderers, Nabil Abdellatif, chairman of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Tunisia (OECT), recommends establishing a special observatory, whose mission will be to monitor, control and detect such crimes.
Furthermore, draft laws are being developed to protect corruption whistleblowers, update the list of crimes related to corruption, criminalize illegal gain and reform the structure of the monitoring system. Meanwhile, the economy has been dealt a severe blow and the solution seems to be political, given the many acts of corruption prevailing in politics.